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The loner's baptism can't hold water

Jun 4, 2018 by

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Christ as revealed in Scripture possessed miraculous powers. But at least one thing escaped his abilities. He couldn’t baptize himself.

Being a Christian isn’t a solo mission. A church of one is not a church. While baptism is a public statement of purification and resurrection, it is also a commitment to a body of believers. As Anabaptists put priority on testing God’s Word in fellowship, membership in such a community cannot be separated from such a decisive step in conversion.

When the time came for Jesus to be baptized, he couldn’t just leap into the Jordan River by himself. He sought out John the Baptist and even got into an argument when John tried to turn the tables and get himself baptized by Christ. “Let it be so now,” Jesus said. “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness,” and John consented (Matt. 3:15).

While many Anabaptist churches view baptism as inseparable from congregational membership, not all require formal membership. The Mennonite Brethren in Canada are beginning a review of the language they use in their Confession of Faith, which is a healthy thing to do now and then.

Some churches have viewed membership as insignificant in comparison to active participation, or as old-fashioned, or as an obstacle for newcomers uncomfortable with churchy stuff. Certain streams of evangelicalism focus on a one-on-one relationship with God, making baptism a final cleansing wash of salvation, leaving so much that follows up to the person. Society and culture may worship individuality, but the church is a collective (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

John Neufeld, lead pastor of The Meeting Place in Winnipeg, Man., feels baptism should be connected to membership, but that wasn’t always the case. Besides being a hurdle for people who might not have felt mature enough or interested in organized religion, he used to feel baptism lowered the standard for membership, with church lists bloated by those who never showed up after their baptismal vows faded from memory.

“When you’re a member, you should be all in,” Neufeld said. “The challenge to service, to tithing, to spiritual life disciplines is high.” For a time, The Meeting Place linked membership to an annual covenant renewal. Now it ties membership to baptism, with periodic checks with elders to assess active membership.

“If this is a theological question, not just an organizational question about the nature of the body of Christ, it has profound implications for pastoral care, church discipline, mutual service and shared mission,” Neufeld said.

There should be a place in every congregation for people interested in learning about Christ but ill at ease with Christians. There should also be a commitment to a body of earthly believers when baptism’s cosmic rebirth happens. Christ couldn’t do it alone, and neither can we.

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